The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): I am aware of a range of arguments regarding the effect of introducing daylight saving time on business and other areas of activity. There has been no recent Government assessment of the merits of those arguments. However, as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, in our recent debate on the private Member's Bill on this issue, I made it clear that Government are willing to publish a review of the available evidence of a move to central European time. That would, of course, include evidence of the effects on business.
Mr Bradshaw: We know that this Government are having trouble reaching agreement on a lot of things, but on this issue, where there is overwhelming support from business and other organisations, cross-party support in the House for the private Member's Bill that the House debated before Christmas, and strong support and promises made by both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister before the election, why is the Minister not moving more quickly?
Mr Davey: This coalition Government of two parties can make more decisions more quickly than the previous Government, of one party, did, and I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman disagrees with the Prime Minister's statement on this issue, in which he said that there should be consensus across the nations of the United Kingdom. That is a sensible approach to take, and we will follow it.
Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD):
I welcome the decision of the House to allow the Daylight Saving Bill to proceed into Committee. Has the Minister considered the possibility of changing the time in the year when the clocks change, so that British summer time can last
longer, while still affording the benefits, which some people cite, that occur at times of the year when daylight hours are shortest?
Mr Davey: I am looking forward to meeting the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) on 20 January to discuss her Bill and how she wants to take it forward, and I am sure that that is one of the issues that she will want debated.
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The Department's plans for supporting business are being developed in a growth review looking at all the barriers to private sector investment growth and job creation-in particular, access to finance, planning and regulation. I shall be specifically working to support business through the regional growth fund, establishing the green investment bank and launching technology and innovation centres.
Nigel Adams: In the early 1990s, when I set up my first business, I received a small weekly grant through the successful enterprise allowance scheme. It was only £20 a week-but in those days people could fill up their cars with fuel for £20 a week. It was enormously helpful in supporting the early stage of the business. Can the Secretary of State give me, and constituents of mine who are thinking of setting up a small business, any indication that the Government will introduce a similar scheme?
Vince Cable: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance: indeed, we have already done so. In October my colleague the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions launched a new enterprise scheme to help precisely the category of people that my hon. Friend describes. It will provide mentoring and funding of up to £2,000, including a weekly allowance and access to a start-up loan.
"rather see finance less proud and business and industry"
Vince Cable: Mr Churchill's views have much to commend them, and they are still relevant in many ways. Certainly, we wish to see manufacturing promoted and finance working in support of it rather than against it.
George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): The Secretary of State shares my view that the life sciences are a key part of the UK small business sector. Does he share my concern that on the basis of the initial representations from the new local enterprise partnerships, there appears to be a lack of appreciation of the importance of joined-up national work on life sciences? Will he agree to meet me and a delegation from the UK life sciences network to talk about how we can ensure that life sciences are properly built in?
Vince Cable: I would certainly be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. As it happens, as part of the growth review, life sciences and related activities are subject to close scrutiny, and I know that my colleague the Minister for Universities and Science is giving the matter a very high priority.
The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): The jobs summit held earlier this week demonstrates the Government's commitment to a pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda. We are committed to a huge increase in the number of apprenticeships leading to technician status; that will nurture the advanced skills we need in manufacturing, technology, and engineering, which are vital to strengthening our economy.
Mr Cunningham: Will the Minister have a discussion with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence regarding any joint ventures with the French, so that British companies and British workers get a fare shake in those contracts?
Mr Hayes: The hon. Gentleman was an engineer at Rolls-Royce, and I am sure that he agrees with engineering employers who say that growth is driven by innovation, investment and exports. That is why we are investing £200 million to support manufacturing and business development and £50 million to enhance the manufacturing advisory service, and are setting up a green investment bank. I will certainly take up the challenge that he offers me today, because he, like me, believes that manufacturing in Britain is excellent, deserves praise and has been talked down too long. This Government will give it the boost that it needs.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will the Minister look into replicating around the country the Harlow college and Essex county council apprentice scheme for manufacturing and engineering? Ninety young people have qualified already, and 15 more will start in apprenticeship week this February.
Mr Hayes: Having anticipated that question, I have already had a meeting with my hon. Friend on just that subject, and I am pleased to be able to say that we will look very closely at the work being done at Harlow college, which is an exemplar in so many ways. We will look at how that can be spread across the whole country, providing more opportunity and apprenticeships, and building a Britain that works.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): A strong manufacturing sector needs a powerful digital economy at its core. Does the Minister agree that it would be good for jobs in the digital economy sector for it to be outside the control of the Business Secretary?
One of the things about coalition is that it brings together people from different starting points. [Interruption.] I have to say that this coalition has
convinced me that the Business Secretary's commitment to jobs, apprenticeships, manufacturing and British business is unrivalled in his post, and is certainly considerably greater than that of his predecessors.
The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): Universities have not yet set their level of graduate contribution for 2012-13. Any institution in England wishing to charge above £6,000 must have an access agreement approved by the director of fair access. The Office for Fair Access will shortly begin discussions with individual institutions that intend to submit an access agreement under our demanding new requirements. We have always made it clear that £9,000 should be charged only in exceptional circumstances.
Sheila Gilmore: The Minister will be aware of the discussion within the university sector; many universities, especially Russell group universities, have already said that they are likely to charge at the higher level. Even some other universities are saying that to break even, they would need to charge more than £7,000. What modelling did the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills do when presenting its financial calculations to the Treasury, if it does not know the answers to questions that the universities appear to know?
Mr Willetts: We are waiting for universities to approach OFFA; they will have to submit a request to OFFA if they wish to go above £6,000. In our financial modelling, which we shared with the House, we made it clear that on average, replicating the income that universities are getting at the moment would involve fees of around £7,000. Of course, we are expecting universities, just like every other organisation in Britain, to make significant efficiency savings and hold down their costs.
Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): My right hon. Friend will remember that under the previous Government a number of higher education institutions were categorised as being at risk of financial failure. In the light of the funding changes taking place, has he updated his risk assessment of the HE institutions at risk?
Mr Willetts: The Higher Education Funding Council for England has always kept an eye on the financial position of universities. As a result of the new revenues that universities will get from graduate contributions, we estimate that it is very possible that at the end of this Parliament universities could well have a higher combined cash income in total from the Exchequer than they do at the moment; that is a sign of our commitment to the strength of British universities.
Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op):
Like the Minister for Universities and Science, the Secretary of State says that universities charging the full £9,000 in tuition fees will be the exception. No one independent thinks that that is credible. The Secretary of State also says that university leaders support his plans, yet not one university vice-chancellor supports the 80% cut in
university teaching grants. He cannot even organise a scholarship fund without creating perverse incentives for universities to turn away students from the very poorest backgrounds, so just to get back to being Mr Bean the Secretary of State has quite a long journey ahead of him. Is it not clearer now that the trebling of tuition fees was not fair or necessary, and still has not been properly thought through?
Mr Willetts: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong. It was made clear when the House debated the issue last month that more than half of all vice-chancellors support our proposals, because, given the tough decisions that we have had to take on public expenditure, we have provided them with an alternative source of income, coming not through a quango but through the choices of students, who can be confident that they will have to pay for their higher education only after they have graduated and are earning more than £21,000 a year.
Mr Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): I know that the Minister recognises the force of the point made by the Glasgow university principal, Anton Muscatelli, in his recent article in The Sunday Times, about the fact that the decisions in England will inevitably create a funding shortfall for Scottish universities. Will the Minister again undertake to stay closely in touch, on behalf of the UK Parliament, with the Scottish Parliament, which has reconvened the all-party technical working group to look at the matter ahead of the all-important May elections?
Mr Willetts: I have ministerial responsibility for the financing of universities in England only, but the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and we do keep in close contact with the devolved Administrations, because there are significant connections between decisions that we take in England and decisions that they take affecting Scotland and Wales.
The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): We have received two proposals for establishing local enterprise partnerships in the north-east-one to cover the Tees Valley, which was cleared to proceed last October, and a second that was received recently for one to cover the remaining local authority areas. I can tell the House today that the second proposal meets the Government's expectations, and we are today writing to the partners to confirm that. This means that just 16 weeks after we sought applications, there is complete coverage in the north-east.
Grahame M. Morris:
I welcome that announcement and thank the Minister for that information. The Business Secretary controversially abolished our regional development agency, One NorthEast, and the Government parties have cut funding for regional development by two thirds. I welcome the good news for my area, but there are concerns among Opposition Members that in the transition period between the RDAs going out and
the LEPs coming in, there will be a problem or a vacuum, and we will not be able to encourage investment or secure the regeneration jobs that we require.
Mr Prisk: Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working very closely both with the outgoing RDA teams, to whom I am grateful for their co-operation and collaboration, and with the incoming local enterprise partnerships. There might be stumbles along the way, because this is a complex path, but I am determined to ensure that we do our best to encourage growth and remove the barriers to growth, especially in the north-east.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I warmly welcome the Government's announcement today that there will be an LEP for the whole north-east apart from Teesside, which already has one, but will the Minister discuss with the Minister responsible for tourism and heritage the transitional problems facing the tourism industry? Its promotional work, uniquely in the north-east, was directly operated by the RDA, One NorthEast, and the business-led alternative will need some transitional help.
Mr Prisk: Given my right hon. Friend's expertise in the area, I would be happy to talk not only to the Minister but to my right hon. Friend himself, in order to ensure that we get the balance right. There is a good opportunity before us, and managing the transition needs a little care and patience, so I shall be happy to work with my right hon. Friend.
Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): My area, in Lancashire, still does not have a local enterprise partnership. Does not that process just confirm that the Secretary of State is still losing the plot on business and growth in England's regions? On 11 November he told the Lunar Society in Birmingham that his LEPs process was "Maoist" and "chaotic", and he repeated that confession to reporters from The Daily Telegraph on 20 December. Meanwhile, the Department for Communities and Local Government has just put in a takeover bid for his European money, which is meant to boost regional businesses and growth. Is not his business and enterprise Minister now left like the boy standing on the burning deck, whence all but he have fled?
Mr Prisk: That was a very stretched literary metaphor, if I may say so. [ Interruption. ] No, in spite of the question, the reality is that the Government are working very closely in that area, and as we have demonstrated in the north-east, we are making good progress. I work closely with my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, as I do with other Ministers, and I am sorry that Opposition Front Benchers have nothing positive to say on this subject.
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): The Chancellor and I are currently in discussions with the banks and are seeking an agreement for them to lend verifiably more than they were planning to viable businesses, especially SMEs. We want more competition in business banking, which is why we have set up the Independent Commission on Banking and we are supporting alternatives to bank lending, such as the equity-based enterprise capital funds.
John Glen: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. My constituent Neil Carden recently visited a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills summit. When giving me feedback, he said that despite my right hon. Friend's efforts to improve SME access to finance through the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, the more important issue of the continuing risk-averse culture among banks remains unchecked. Given my right hon. Friend's recent comments about the armoury of weapons he has at his disposal, could he set out which ones he is going to use to tackle that culture and get banks to lend more to small businesses?
Vince Cable: My hon. Friend successfully ran a family business for some years, I believe, so he understands risk management. Clearly, in the banking sector, in many cases banks took extraordinary risks in commercial and domestic property and derivatives. It is right that they should be conscious of risk, but to some extent they have lurched to the other extreme. That is one of the reasons why the Chancellor and I are discussing how to maintain a steady flow of credit to viable enterprises.
Christopher Pincher: May I continue the theme begun by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) and tell my right hon. Friend about an SME in Tamworth called Summit Systems? Although that company has never been in debt it is finding it very difficult to access a normal bank loan, and it does not qualify for the £1 million-worth of regional growth fund funding because it does not need that sort of capital. What can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that smaller amounts of funding are made more readily available to organisations such as Summit, and will he encourage the new Greater Birmingham LEP to take these issues very seriously?
Vince Cable: I hope that the LEP will take this matter seriously. My hon. Friend is right to say that the regional growth fund has a limit of £1 million, which precludes small businesses from applying directly. None the less, the company he mentioned and others do have access to, for example, the enterprise finance guarantee scheme. I think that 37 companies in his constituency have already drawn £4 million from that source.
"If banks are saying to us they have got lots of money to spread out on bonuses...at a time when they are constricting credit to small and medium enterprises, then the government may have to use some form of taxation to change their behaviour".
The whole House knows, and has already heard this morning, that small businesses are still finding credit too hard to get and too expensive when they do get it. The Government have given up on bonuses. The chief
executive of Lloyds is purported to be getting £2 million after he has left his job, so why is taxation on the banks being cut?
Vince Cable: The right hon. Gentleman was present on Tuesday when the Chancellor gave a very clear statement of our current position in dealing with the banks, and made it very clear that nothing was off the table. However, the right hon. Gentleman is quite right: there is an issue for small scale business in relation to credit supply as well as lack of demand. We are trying to remedy that through the discussions that we are having.
Mr Denham: The truth is that, for all his hollow rhetoric, the Secretary of State has failed small businesses. He promised that the banks would be taxed more if they did not lend. They are not lending, yet taxes are being cut. He has damaged small businesses with the chaotic abolition of regional development agencies, he has excluded small businesses from the regional growth fund, and he promised to publish a growth plan, but could not do so because his civil servants said there was nothing to put in it. The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) is reduced to telling Members of Parliament that they will have to write to the banks to help their small businesses, and now the Secretary of State has lost the part of his Department that supports small businesses in the digital economy for no other reason than that he is not a fit and proper person to take the biggest competition policy decision we will see for years. Everyone knows that he is hanging on to his job by a thread, waiting for the Prime Minister to cut it.
Vince Cable: The right hon. Gentleman has obviously been trying to polish that intervention for the past three weeks; it is getting a bit stale. The simple truth is that if he had read the latest small business survey, he would have seen that rapid growth is taking place and more jobs are being undertaken-300,000 in the past six months, almost all of which are in the small business sector. That is the sector that will drive the British economy forward and achieve the recovery that this Government have achieved.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): Next week I will meet a small business man in my constituency who runs a plumbing business employing 10 people, and whose current finance is under threat of being removed by a bank. If we do not succeed-as I hope we will-in negotiating continued finance, what remedies are there to allow small businesses to get support in their battle, given that the Government are very clear about this, and that we need the banks to deliver?
Vince Cable: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; many companies are in that position. He will be aware that the banking taskforce recently produced a whole set of remedies for companies such as the one that he described, which have had bad experiences with banks and wish to pursue an appeal.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab):
The Secretary of State will realise that we now have a good opportunity to strengthen the supply chain in the
automotive sector. However, unless he comes out with a clearer policy position on longer-term finance for medium-sized businesses, that will not happen. What is he going to do to strengthen the supply of finance?
Vince Cable: I am aware of the importance of the automobile industry in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, where I have seen the excellent Vauxhall operation. Specifically, we are working through the Automotive Council, of which I think he is aware, and with which all the leading manufacturers in the UK are associated. One of its earliest decisions was on deepening the British supply chain, and several companies have already reported that that process is happening in a positive way.
Mr Sam Gyimah (East Surrey) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his answers so far on bank lending. A lot of risky start-up businesses still rely on business angels and friends and family to invest equity. What are the Government doing to plug that equity gap so that people can start up new businesses, employ people and get the economy growing?
Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman is an authority on this; I think that he was entrepreneur of the future several years ago. We do have the growth funds that provide equity. He may also have noticed that as a result of our discussions with the banks, they have established an equity fund in order to achieve precisely the aims that he describes.
The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): The advisory panel is currently expected to meet in late February to consider applications from the first bidding round to the fund-once, of course, the bids have been processed.
Ian Austin: When the panel meets, will the Minister ensure that the west midlands, hit hardest during the downturn and taking the longest to recover, gets the greatest help from the fund? Does he accept that the fantastic work that has been put in by business men in the black country to get our local enterprise partnership off the ground will be seriously hampered if they do not get the funds they need from the regional growth fund?
Mr Prisk: I very much welcome the work that has been undertaken by businesses in the black country, and I pay tribute to them for that. Of course, the regional growth fund has to be based on merit, because it needs to be focused on making sure that the best cases come forward. Like the hon. Gentleman, I suspect that some excellent examples will come forward from his area, and from the west midlands as a whole. Cases must be judged on merit alone.
Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con):
The Black Country Reinvestment Society has a very successful record in arranging loans to micro-businesses and small and medium-sized enterprises across the black country. Does the Minister agree that a good way of getting regional
growth fund money to small businesses is by enabling grants from the RGF to investment co-operatives such as the BCRS?
Mr Prisk: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, who is also very expert in this area. We can do this not only through the regional growth fund but by ensuring that we work through, for example, the enterprise finance guarantee, so that small institutions such as community development finance institutions are able to participate, and the micro-loans to which she refers can be extended. I have changed the rules; they can now get involved.
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): I meet the banks frequently to discuss a range of issues, remuneration being one of them. As confirmed by the Chancellor on Tuesday, he and I are in discussions with them to see whether we can reach a new settlement in which banks show restraint and pay smaller bonuses than they would otherwise have done, and demonstrate greater transparency and disclosure.
"Transparency is key to creating confidence in any commitment from our banks to behave more responsibly on pay".
"There is much more disclosure in some other Western countries, and this is something we can do, something I can do."
Vince Cable: The hon. Gentleman tells a very interesting fictional story about Cabinet discussions. On transparency, we have a system of disclosure in this country for directors of public companies, as I am sure he is aware.
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Does the Business Secretary acknowledge the contribution made to the economy by the 1 million people working in the UK financial sector, who contribute £25 billion in taxes every year, on top of the staggering £54 billion contributed to the UK economy by the financial sector. That is essential for schools and hospitals. Will he defend the sector that he is charged with promoting?
Vince Cable: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a massive sector of the UK economy and it makes a major positive contribution. It is unfortunate, in a way, that its reputation has been so damaged by activities in a handful of banks.
Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): The Secretary of State has been right to say that as long as the taxpayer acts as a guarantor of the banking industry, the Government have a legitimate interest in remuneration, specifically in banks in which the state has a large stake. Will he therefore tell the House what he and the Chancellor mean when they say that no option will be taken off the table if the bonus round is not agreed to the Government's satisfaction? In other words, what specific actions will the Government take if they are not satisfied with the outcome of the bonus round?
Vince Cable: The right hon. Gentleman poses the problem absolutely correctly. The reason why bonuses are an issue-they are not one to anything like the same degree in other industries-is that some banks are publicly owned and others are guaranteed. The remedy lies in the work of the Independent Commission on Banking, which reported last year on issues such as generating competition and the possible break-up of particular institutions.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May I say to the Secretary of State that big bank bonuses are entirely inappropriate when lending to small and medium-sized enterprises is not taking place as it should? Only this week I was told of a business franchisee in Kettering who was told by Barclays bank that his account, which had been in credit for five years, would be closed unless he paid an annual fee of £25,000 because of spurious new audit requirements-which, when he looked into it, were completely false. He has been lied to by Barclays bank, and its chief executive should not get a bonus.
Vince Cable: Indeed, it would help if bonuses, where they exist, reflected performance in lending to the good companies that my hon. Friend describes. That is precisely why the Chancellor and I are discussing how we will ensure a proper flow of credit to those excellent enterprises, which are the backbone of our economy.
"We will bring forward detailed proposals for robust action to tackle unacceptable bonuses in the financial services sector; in developing these proposals, we will ensure they are effective in reducing risk."
Will the Secretary of State use his nuclear option to make that happen, or will he dance away from it, in the same way as the coalition has danced away from the net lending targets that were also in the coalition agreement?
Vince Cable: The coalition agreement is a much more eloquent statement of our position than the hon. Gentleman's rather tortured metaphors. It states precisely that we will take robust action on unacceptable bonuses, and that remains our position.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): Royal Mail and the Post Office are natural partners with a strong existing commercial relationship. As the House heard yesterday, the chief executive of Royal Mail, Moya Greene, has said that it is "unthinkable" that that will not continue after the separation of Royal Mail and the Post Office.
Katy Clark: The Minister will be well aware of the huge concern in the country over the implications of the privatisation of Royal Mail for the post office network. Will he give a simple assurance that not a single post office-not no outlet, but no post office-will close as a direct result of privatisation?
Mr Davey: We had this debate yesterday and I answered that very question. I made it clear, as did Ministers in the previous Government, that it is impossible for a Minister to say that no post office anywhere in the country will close, because 97% of them are run by private individuals, who may decide to sell up or retire. That cannot therefore be required. However, we will not repeat the major closure programmes of the previous Government.
Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I recently met the management of the Black Pear credit union in Worcestershire, who warmly welcomed positive noises from the Government about the idea of credit unions working with post offices. Will the Minister update us on the progress that the Government are making with that idea and on the other opportunities he sees for post offices to expand their business in future?
Mr Davey: We are certainly doing that, as we set out in our post office policy document last year. There is a pilot in Glasgow and south Lanarkshire in which pay-out technology is being used in co-ordination with credit unions, and guidance has been given to sub-postmasters about how they can work with their local credit unions.
Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): Hundreds of post offices up and down the country are temporarily closed. If the Minister is really committed to not having closure programmes such as we have seen in recent years, what is he doing to get those post offices reopened, and when will the post office on Walmgate, in York, reopen?
Mr Davey: In my constituency, when I was in opposition and the last Government were in power, a post office was temporarily closed and I worked with Post Office Ltd to get it reopened. We succeeded; the hon. Gentleman should do that.
The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): We are consulting students, universities and other experts and will publish a White Paper in the early part of this year. It will set out how we will sustain our world-class universities, encourage them to deliver high-quality teaching and improve social mobility.
Mr Evennett: I thank my right hon. Friend. As he knows, a significant number of higher education courses are now being provided at further education colleges. Can he advise me whether the White Paper will build upon that?
Mr Willetts: My hon. Friend was, of course, a lecturer in a further education college, and it is only right that he should remind us of the contribution that FE colleges can make. He is absolutely right, and we do hope to encourage higher education in further education institutions as part of our White Paper.
Justin Tomlinson: In an ever more complex financial world, does the Minister agree that offering additional financial education will give universities a unique selling point in providing quality student support on post-study matters, and therefore should be considered as part of higher education pastoral support in the forthcoming White Paper?
Mr Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of people having access to good financial advice. Of course, one thing that students can be advised is that in future, under the coalition's proposals, their monthly repayments on their student loans will be lower than under the current scheme.
Nicola Blackwood: The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that socio-economic disadvantage has already had an impact on academic outcomes by the age of 11, and that disadvantage explains a significant proportion of the gap in HE participation at 19 or 20. Does the Minister agree that simply expecting universities to bridge educational inequalities once they have become entrenched will not work? If so, how does he intend to work with relevant Departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education, and with universities as they develop their access programmes, to try to break the link between socio-economic disadvantage in the early years and HE participation once and for all?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that that problem needs to be tackled at all stages of the educational process, in early years, at school and at university. I am pleased to inform the House today of a new initiative, an excellent collaboration between KPMG and the university of Durham, whereby school leavers will go straight into employment with KPMG while
also studying at the university, with their fees paid by KPMG. That is an excellent example of the type of initiative that we want to see.
Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): What assessment has the Minister made of the disconnect between the cuts in higher education funding, particularly in the arts and humanities, and the delayed implementation of the education White Paper, which contains the new funding arrangements? Universities will have cuts before they get the new funding arrangements following that White Paper.
Mr Willetts: As I said earlier, it was clear in the grant letter that we sent to the Higher Education Funding Council for England that over the next few years, as the teaching grant income of universities falls, there will be increased income through the graduate contribution scheme. We believe that by the end of this Parliament, universities could well have a higher total income than they have at the moment.
Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): On graduate contributions, can it be right that we are asking students to pay more when some universities have clearly not sorted out their inefficiencies? For example, is it right for Oxford fellows to get a free lunch on the taxpayer?
Mr Willetts: I think that we in the House have to be careful about free lunches. I do not know about the specific arrangements at Oxford, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's wider point and appreciate his experience as a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We are entitled to expect universities to make efficiency savings. There should be more contracting out; they should hold down their pensions costs-there is a lot that universities should do to hold down their costs. They should not simply pass them on to students in higher fees.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Further to the point on universities, how many children of servicemen and women killed on active duty are expected to be eligible for the new university scholarship scheme?
Mr Willetts: We obviously do not know, as the years progress, how many children in those tragic circumstances can benefit. I think some estimates suggest that the figure could be 100 a year at the peak of the scheme. Our commitment to the education of the children of servicemen who sadly lost their lives is an important sign of our commitment to maintaining the military covenant.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey):
I have received representations on the Government's policy on the future of the post office network from a range of interested
organisations and individuals. We are providing £1.34 billion of funding to modernise the network and to safeguard its future.
Michael Ellis: I thank the Under-Secretary very much for that answer. Under the previous Labour regime, many post offices in Northampton North and throughout the country were forced to close. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Government will do everything that they can to protect that vital local service and allow it to continue to provide the assistance that it obviously does to so many people?
Mr Davey: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, not just because we are putting in £1.34 billion but because we are developing new services. I hope that I will be able to make more information on that available to the House in due course. In our policy paper last year, we talked about several pilots, which will go ahead.
Ian Mearns: I would like to press the Minister a little further on tourism. The tourism and hospitality industry employs 20,000 people in Gateshead and Newcastle alone, and we collaborate on an awful lot of work. The industry is therefore important for the entire regional economy. However, with the demise of the regional development agency and cessation of our successful "Passionate people, passionate places" advertising campaign, we have a vacuum. You have already agreed this morning to meet the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). Will you meet me and other interested Members from the Tyneside area to discuss the future of tourism in our region?
Mr Prisk: Perhaps, Mr Speaker, we could travel together to the delights of the north-east. I would be only too pleased to ensure that we make a joint effort, working with my colleague, the tourism Minister, on the matter. The north-east has some marvellous places to visit, although, given that I am a born Cornishman, it was a slight distance for me to travel when I was child. Nevertheless, we need to consider that area carefully and I am happy to accede to the hon. Gentleman's request.
Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con):
I would like to bring to the Minister's attention a proposal by the Motor Industry Research Association, which is based on the border of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) to build a new technology park. It aims to attract £250 million in investment and directly create 2,000 jobs in the next 10 years, with 200 in place by 2013. MIRA wants to bid
for regional growth funding shortly to facilitate that project. Will the Minister agree to meet representatives of MIRA to discuss that exciting proposal for the east and west midlands?
Mr Prisk: Clearly, all applications need to go through the appropriate regional growth fund process, but I am always happy for my Department to receive the information on excellent private projects such as the one to which my hon. Friend referred.
The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): On 5 January, the Prime Minister announced plans to overhaul the Business Link website, provide a national contact centre, establish a network of business mentors and launch the business coaching for growth programme. This is in addition to the enterprise finance guarantee, providing £200 million more in equity funds and extending and improving the manufacturing advisory service.
Miss McIntosh: I thank the Minister for that particularly helpful answer. I am concerned about local enterprise partnerships and the transition period, and about whether the businesses, particularly rural businesses in north Yorkshire that currently benefit will lose out in the interim.
Mr Prisk: There are two aspects to how we ensure that small businesses are helped. The first is the online offer and the modernising and improving of what is available in businesses' own premises so that they can access the information they need. The second is the quality of business-to-business advice. We think that the people with real business experience-business-to-business mentors-are the best answer, which is why I am proud to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that already, six months ahead of launch, we have identified 40,000 experienced business people who have offered to provide precisely that kind of help.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): One of the problems that small businesses have is the acquisition of premises. If the Minister would care to walk down the Melton road in Leicester with me, he would see a very vibrant area, but a lot of empty shops. What can be done to assist local businesses in acquiring premises?
Mr Prisk: I would be delighted to walk down the Melton road with the right hon. Gentleman, although my travel diary is beginning to get a little pressed. The crucial opportunity here comes from the local enterprise partnerships and removing barriers to growth. The business and civic communities in those cities and areas are best placed to identify where the pressure is and to talk to the landlords and municipal authorities involved. That is why we want to ensure that LEPs make a real difference in removing the barriers to growth.
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): My Department is the Department for growth, and has a key role in supporting business to deliver growth, in rebalancing the economy by bringing enterprise, manufacturing, training, learning and research closer together, and in the process creating a stronger, fairer British economy.
Rehman Chishti: Business leaders in my constituency are concerned about the effects of rising costs, such as fuel prices. What support is being given to businesses to help them with such pressures in these difficult times?
The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Mark Prisk): In response to the business question, the crucial issue is ensuring that we deal with issues within our purview-in other words, cutting corporate taxes and dealing with business rates, which we plan to do. On the fuel question, which I understand as a former businessman, we are monitoring the situation closely and will bring back our proposals on the fair fuel stabiliser in due course.
T4.  Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): The House will have noticed in recent weeks the Secretary of State's remarkable transformation from Chairman Mao to Mr "Has Been". Will he tell me how he is enjoying the long march of government?
T2.  Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Over the Christmas and new year period, some of my constituents received no post for up to a fortnight. Does the Minister agree that this is not acceptable, and could he talk to the Royal Mail about whether residents should be allowed to present themselves at a sorting office, providing they have identification, to collect mail that has been stockpiled there?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter with me; it was the first time I had heard about it. Although it is an operational matter for Royal Mail, there are certain procedures it must adhere to. For one, it must ensure that the right letters and parcels get to the right people. Of course, in normal circumstances, a "sorry you were out" card is left for the person, if they are out, after which they go and show their identification. However, it seems common sense that in exceptional circumstances, when Royal Mail cannot deliver, an individual should be able to go to their local delivery office. I know that my hon. Friend has contacted Royal Mail to raise this issue. I have looked into it overnight, and it appears that that particular office has experienced high levels of sickness in recent weeks. However, I will liaise with him on the matter.
T5.  Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): The new enterprise tsar, Lord Heseltine, said in Cardiff this week that 400,000 new jobs will be created in the private sector in the next five years. Will the Minister tell us how many of these jobs will be created in Wales?
Vince Cable: The Welsh position with respect to regional development is different from the position in England, but I will be going to Wales shortly, together with the Secretary of State for Wales, to talk about how we can promote manufacturing and enterprise there.
T3.  Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): Last night I had the pleasure of meeting three community learning champions from Blackpool at an event promoted and organised by NIACE-the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education-but funded by this Department. Does the Minister of State agree that money spent on informal adult learning needs to be valued and assessed for the benefits that it brings, because of its life-changing impact, and that money spent on informal adult learning is money that does not need to be spent on either the welfare system or social care?
The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (Mr John Hayes): I think it was Yeats who said that education is lighting a fire, not filling a pail. I want the light of adult learning to burn brightly across the whole of Britain, which is why, against expectations and the predictions of our critics, we protected the adult learning budget, of more than £200 million, in the spending review. That light will burn as long as we are in government, and as long as I am the Minister.
T7.  Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): The Business Secretary campaigned under the slogan "A fair banking system-change that works for you". Eric Daniels, the outgoing CEO of the part-publicly owned state banking group Lloyds, will reportedly be taking home a package of £4 million in the current pay round-£2 million by way of bonuses and £2 million by way of incentives. Does the Business Secretary regard that as acceptable, and if not, what action will he be taking?
Vince Cable: I am amazed that Opposition Members keep dragging up issues relating to the contracts of senior executives in the semi-nationalised banking sector that they negotiated without proper support for the companies to which they are due to lend.
T6.  Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Phoenix trading, whereby directors in financial difficulty set up a new business and then buy back their assets at a knock-down rate-that is, for less than the bad debts that they walk away from-is a serious issue for small businesses that supply those goods in good faith, both in my constituency, and, I am sure, those of many other Members. In reply to my parliamentary question, the Government said that no legislation was planned, but what comfort can they provide to small businesses? Will the Minister meet me to discuss the various tools that his officials could use to provide such comfort?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. Pre-packs, which is the name of the process that he is talking about, are a way of dealing
with companies that are already insolvent. In some circumstances they can work well. However, I recognise the concerns that he has raised about the process, especially when the sale is backed to connected parties, such as the phoenix-type companies that he talked about. I am currently considering the responses to a consultation that the previous Government held on improving transparency and confidence in the pre-pack approach to administration. I plan to make an announcement on that in the near future, and I would certainly be happy to meet him.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) and I have been in correspondence with the Secretary of State about the future of the General Motors van plant in Luton. I thank him for his reply, which we received this week. It seems from press reports that, as of yesterday, there are still uncertainties about the future of the van plant. Will he now intervene directly with the company to ensure that a new vehicle comes to Luton for the period after 2013?
Vince Cable: Yes, I know that this is an extremely important part of the British car industry; indeed, it is a highly productive and successful one. I have spoken to Mr Reilly about the issue, and I think that this part of the industry has a very good future.
T8.  Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that although the 50p rate of tax may be necessary in the short term, it will have a detrimental effect on economic growth in the UK in the medium to long term? It scares away foreign investors, acts as a disincentive for home-grown entrepreneurs to start businesses and offers a massive incentive for some of our brightest and best business brains to leave this country and pay less tax elsewhere.
Vince Cable: When I was in opposition I spent quite a lot of political energy arguing against a 50p tax rate. However, in the present context we have to understand that the burdens of the very difficult period through which we are passing have to be shared fairly, and that is why the tax remains in place.
Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): What assessment has the Department made of the impact on competitiveness, particularly in rural areas, of the delay, from 2012 to 2015, in the target date for a universal broadband service?
T9.  Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): The competition for university places becomes more intense every year, as increasing numbers of young people apply for university. The Minister visited Northampton college in my constituency during the recent election campaign. Can he elaborate on any plans that would allow students to study for a degree or do a vocational course at their local college, such as Northampton college, rather than applying for university?
Mr Hayes: I enjoyed my visit to Northampton college. It was not the first time that I had been there and I am delighted that my hon. Friend continues to champion its cause. We are determined to drive up the status of vocational qualifications and colleges play a vital role in that. Like my hon. Friend, I also want more HE taught in FE, because that is a key way of widening access to those who currently do not benefit from a university or from higher learning.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I was a former competition Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, so will the Secretary of State tell me whether he regards the conversation he had with journalists before Christmas about the BSkyB case as a serious breach of the ministerial code?
Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): The businesses of London play a key role in building a strong economy for the future. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and a west London business to talk about challenges and priorities and how to create new jobs and growth for the future in west London?
Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): In my Dundee East sorting office, the deployment of the Royal Mail's "Way Forward" system has been described variously as shambolic and chaotic. Hundreds of people have complained directly through my office. Even this morning, one constituent was waiting on parcels sent on 6 December, which is quite unacceptable. Is the Minister aware of this problem? What has he done and what discussions has he had with Royal Mail? Will he assure the House that the "Way Forward" system will not be implemented in any other large sorting offices until each and every one of these problems is resolved?
Mr Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this point, of which I am aware. Royal Mail accepts that there were initial problems with establishing the new delivery system in the Dundee East delivery office and I am sure that it will learn from them. Following a review, a recovery plan was put in place, but I am afraid that the severe weather hindered it. Royal Mail has apologised for the disruption to services and taken a range of measures as a matter of urgency to ensure that households and businesses in Dundee East receive all their mail. For example, 70 extra staff and managers have been drafted in to help the recovery following a major push last weekend. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to report back to me that his constituents and businesses are seeing an improvement.
Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con):
May I pay tribute to the excellent work of the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and the Under-Secretary of State for Business,
Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), in reducing the burden of red tape on British small businesses? Will they update me on progress made in one of the biggest areas of burden-that of employment law-and on any exciting steps that might be taking place in the coming weeks?
Mr Davey: My hon. Friend will know that we have today announced the abolition of the default retirement age, which is a deregulatory measure. In the very near future we hope to announce the next stage of our employment law review, and I am sure he will welcome that.
Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): In a letter to the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), the shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills highlighted the confusion relating to ministerial responsibilities, following the comments by the Secretary of State on the issue of BSkyB. Does the right hon. Gentleman regret the loss of these responsibilities to his pro-Murdoch colleague?
Vince Cable: I can indeed explain the allocation of responsibilities. The responsibility for competition and policy relating to media broadcasting, digital and telecoms lies with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. Our two Departments have worked together very closely in the past and will continue to do so. The precise allocation of responsibilities will be set out in a written ministerial statement very soon.
Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): Will the Minister update the House on what steps his Department is taking to encourage investment in industrial small and medium-sized enterprises in east Lancashire, which are so vital to job growth in my Rossendale and Darwen constituency?
Mr Prisk: I am pleased to say that we are not only going to extend the manufacturing and advisory service for all businesses, including the excellent ones in my hon. Friend's constituency, but improve it so that we can help the productivity and competitiveness of small businesses in Lancashire and, indeed, across the country.
John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): The Business Secretary continually tells us that the economy is steaming along very nicely and that everything is wonderful. If that is the case, why are wage settlements running at a rate far below price inflation?
Vince Cable: The British economy is indeed recovering. It was in an appalling state, but economic growth is now strong. It will become stronger as a result of the work that the Government are doing in stabilising finances, and real wages will appreciate on the back of that.
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con):
We have heard today about some excellent initiatives involving skills training, apprenticeships and mentoring for business. What concerns
me is that many owners and managers of small and medium-sized enterprises spend their days with their heads down, concentrating on their businesses. What we need to do is communicate the opportunities to them. What can the Minister do to reassure me that the 4,000 SME owners in my constituency will hear about those initiatives?
Mr Prisk: Not only have we put the information online, but we are working through the excellent trade bodies representing small businesses to feed it out to them. I urge Members, when talking to members of the small business community, to tell them what is being done to help their businesses to grow and prosper. That is the job that we need to do, and I hope that Members will support us in the task.
Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): It is clearly embarrassing for the Business Secretary that he has failed to deliver robust action on banker bonuses and to deliver the net lending targets. If he cannot persuade the Chancellor to fulfil those coalition agreement promises, will he resign?
Vince Cable: That is an utterly absurd question. The hon. Gentleman knows that after the massive banking crisis that happened under the last Government as a result of poor supervision of an overweight banking sector, this Government are trying to introduce measures to make it more stable and to contribute to the real economy. That will happen; it did not happen under the last Government.
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): Following the coalition's commitment to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies via the Export Credits Guarantee Department, has any progress been made on agreeing a definition of such subsidies?
Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): The cuts in higher education funding will begin at the beginning of the next financial year, in April 2011. The university year will not end until the summer, and the new income streams from tuition fees will not arrive until some indeterminate time in the future. There is a disconnection in the cash flow to higher education. What is the Minister doing to prevent it from damaging higher education?
The Minister for Universities and Science (Mr David Willetts): As I explained earlier, we are of course providing an alternative source of income for universities as graduate contributions come in. There will be a reduction in the teaching grant in the coming year, just as there will be public expenditure savings across many Departments, but universities will be able to go through that period, and we expect that at the end of the current Parliament, they will have a higher total income than they have at present.
Wednesday 19 January-Opposition Day [9th Allotted Day]. There will be a full day's debate on education maintenance allowance which will arise on an Opposition motion, followed by a motion to approve a Statutory Instrument relating to proscribed organisations.
Thursday 20 January-Motion relating to the future of the horse racing levy, followed by a general debate on improving life chances for disadvantaged children. The subjects of both debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
After a week in which the Government have made it clear that while they will act to make it easier for people at work to be sacked, they will not act on bankers' bonuses-as we have just heard-thereby breaking a pledge on the very first page of the coalition agreement, may we have a debate on "all in it togetherness" so that the House can discuss just how let down by this Government the British people feel?
On Monday, the Leader of the Opposition proposed that last year's bonus tax, which raised more money than the Government's levy, be applied again. On Tuesday, the Chancellor, in what was a truly dismal performance at the Dispatch Box-it was all waffle and wind-had nothing to say about what will actually be done to tackle unacceptable bonuses. Therefore, as the Chancellor is not up to the job, and as the Deputy Prime Minister is not much better-his contribution this week was to ask banks to be
"sensitive to the public mood"-
"decide to pay themselves big bonuses...they should know"
that a Conservative Government will step in. He also promised that in banks where the taxpayer has a large stake, no cash bonus would be more than £2,000. Yet yesterday we learned that the boss of Lloyds-which has a 41% taxpayer stake-is in line for a bonus not of £2,000 but of £2 million. What is going to be done about this? What is the Prime Minister waiting for? When is he going to act?
Surely it cannot be that the Prime Minister is afraid about the use of nuclear weapons. I do not mean to start the year on a downbeat note but, as we know, just before Christmas the Business Secretary, who has now left the Chamber, revealed that being in the coalition was like fighting a war:
"They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don't have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far then I can walk out of the Government and bring the Government down."
"made a pledge not to do anything about universal child benefit. Cameron had personally pledged not to do it, so they had to bite this bullet...they haven't yet done winter fuel payments, but that's coming, I think."
As we know, the main consequence of the Business Secretary's comments on the other war he has been engaged in-the one with Rupert Murdoch-was that his responsibilities for media and broadcasting policy were instantly taken away from him. Yet as we have just heard, getting on for a month later there has still been no detailed statement clarifying exactly what areas of policy and which staff have been moved. One result, as you heard earlier this week, Mr Speaker, is that the Table Office is unsure where questions should be directed. This is clearly unsatisfactory and unacceptable, so will the Leader tell us when we can expect a statement on who is responsible for what?
"Our plans don't involve an increase in VAT."
May we therefore have a debate on why-first it was education maintenance allowance, then it was child benefit, then it was top-down reorganisation of the NHS, then it was tuition fees, then it was cuts to front-line services, and now it is VAT-the Government have broken one promise after another? Is it any wonder that public confidence in the Government is draining away, because they cannot keep their word, their members are at war with each other, and they cannot find the bottle to deal with the banks?
Finally, as it is the new year, on a consensual note, will the Leader of the House tell the House whether the Government plan to make a submission to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority consultation?
We will take no lectures from the Opposition about the banks, because the regime that is currently operating is the one we inherited from them. The right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Government who signed the contract with RBS, obliging it to pay market-based bonuses this year. We regard that framework as wholly unsatisfactory and so we are changing it. We have introduced the most stringent code of practice for any financial centre in the world; we have replaced Labour's one-off tax on bonuses with a permanent levy on the banks; and, as he will have heard from the Chancellor on Tuesday, we are looking for a fresh settlement with the banks on bonuses, on lending and on transparency. With us nothing is off the table; with the Opposition there is nothing on the table. The shadow Chancellor gave a dismal performance on Tuesday, failing to mention the initiative announced on Monday by his leader: the wish for a permanent tax on the bonuses. That did not feature, in any way, in the shadow Chancellor's response. Is this evidence of a further rift between the shadow Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition?
The second point made by the shadow Leader of the House related to the secret taping of Liberal Democrat Members, and I think that Members on both sides of the House should be concerned about the tactics that were used. I think that journalists posing as constituents, raising fictitious cases with MPs and taping them without their knowledge all risks prejudicing the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his constituent at his advice bureau. [Interruption.] This does not seem to me to be responsible journalism -[ Interruption .]
Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) should not be yelling across the Chamber at the Leader of the House; it is very discourteous and very uncharacteristic of the hon. Gentleman.
Sir George Young: On the substance of the stories, what was reported and what the shadow Leader of the House just mentioned were absolutely nothing compared with what Labour politicians have been saying about their colleagues behind their backs over the past 10 years. Indeed, just before Christmas it was reported that a Labour insider had said:
"Ed Miliband's team are terrified of Ed Balls and Yvette. They think they're going to come and try and kill him. And the reason they think that is because they will."
We are committed to making winter fuel payments. On the machinery of government, I believe that the shadow Leader of the House was in the Chamber to hear the Business Secretary answer that specific question. The answer is that the details of the change will be set out to Parliament in the usual way and in full.
"ultimately we made no hard commitment on VAT. That was partly the traditional caution of governments, wanting to keep options open."
"The advantage of VAT is it brings in a lot of money. It would have allowed you to have done you know a lot to take down the deficit".
Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): May we have a statement on the Government's plans, contained in the coalition agreement, to allow petitions with more than 100,000 names to be debated in this House?
Sir George Young: I thank my hon. Friend for reminding the House that the coalition agreement contains that commitment to introduce e-petitions, with those that reach a certain level-100,000 names-becoming eligible for a debate in the House. That is an important step in building a bigger and stronger bridge between this House and those we represent. I have already had some informal discussions with the Procedure Committee about this and I will have further discussions, both with that Committee and with the Backbench Business Committee. I think that this would be a very appropriate subject for the House to debate, if it wished to do so.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): May we have a debate in Government time on the Government's proposals to close coastguard stations across the United Kingdom? This approach goes against the grain of localism. This centralisation has the potential to put lives at risk and to do away with local expertise, so may we have an urgent debate on it?
Sir George Young: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, which I know is shared by others and which was raised at Prime Minister's questions yesterday. I shall draw his concern to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport, who has responsibility for this matter. It might be an appropriate subject on which the hon. Gentleman can seek an Adjournment debate.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con):
This Government have put Parliament first much more than any previous Administration. Select Committees are elected, the Chairmen of Select Committees are elected, we have the Backbench Business Committee and Conservative Members have free votes in Committee. The one thing that is still causing some concern is
programme motions, which would be resolved by having the House business committee. What progress is there towards that?
Sir George Young: We made a commitment that the previous Government refused to make, namely to introduce a House business committee within three years of this Parliament. I want to evaluate the work of the Backbench Business Committee at the end of its first year and then to take forward the discussions on how we might roll that into a House business committee that would embrace both the Backbench Business Committee and the Government business managers.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport on readiness for future spells of severe cold weather, snow and ice? We had the report from David Quarmby, published on 21 December, on the response to the previous spell of cold weather. My constituents suffered chaos on Network South East during the recent period of bad weather, and it is right that this House should hear a statement on what the Government are doing to ensure that we do not have that chaos again in future.
Sir George Young: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He will know that the Secretary of State made a statement just before we rose for the Christmas recess. The country is, I think, in a much more resilient position this winter than in the past couple of years, but we are not complacent. The Secretary of State, in a written statement on 21 December, informed the House of the publication of the report to which the hon. Gentleman just referred. The Secretary of State undertook, on behalf of his Department, to do further work on how well highways authorities and transport operators in England coped with the cold weather between 24 November and 9 December. I cannot promise a statement, but I know that the Secretary of State will want to keep the House informed.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Government say that they wish to help disabled people back into work. May we have a debate to contrast the rhetoric with the reality? It is quite clear to me that those who are responsible for the disability living allowance and for Motability and those who conduct tribunals-such as the judge in one such case in Colchester-can show a lack of compassion, understanding and common sense. I have a constituent who will lose his job next week. Mr Robert Oxley is a married man with four children who lost the use of both legs in a motorcycle accident but is no longer deemed to be a suitable person to have a Motablity car. He will thus lose his job, and the burden on the financial purse-you know this, Mr Speaker, because I have given you the details-will be greater than the cost of keeping him in work. May we have a debate to discuss such cases?
Sir George Young:
I will certainly be happy to raise with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the specific instance that my hon. Friend has mentioned. I think we are still operating the regime that we inherited- I do not think the changes have yet been made. When
we propose changes to the DLA, that will require primary legislation and will lead to an opportunity for debate in this House.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): This morning, the Secretary of State for Justice announced the first prison closure programme since the second world war. He briefed the press before he made his written ministerial statement and that briefing took place only 24 hours after Justice oral questions. That follows the Ministry of Justice's failure to make a statement on the prison riots. These are important matters. Will the Leader of the House encourage his colleagues in that Department not to be quite so evasive?
Sir George Young: My right hon. and learned Friend was at this Dispatch Box on Tuesday, answering questions on behalf of his Department. He issued a written statement, to which the hon. Lady referred, on closing three prisons, one of which is a 13th century castle, and set out the reasons why. I very much regret that that written ministerial statement may have leaked to one particular paper. My right hon. and learned Friend set out the reasons why the closures were the right thing to do, referred to the increased capacity that is coming on stream and confirmed that there is the capacity, even with these closures, to cope with those likely to be sentenced by the courts.
Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend allow a debate about the continued plight of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka? It is not only about the oppression they have experienced; they now have to take into the account the floods that have hit the country.
Sir George Young: I very much welcome the work that my hon. Friend does in this respect. We have encouraged the Sri Lankans to ensure that the lessons learned and reconciliation commission produces recommendations that address all the past allegations to which my hon. Friend refers and encourages all communities in Sri Lanka to live peacefully together.
Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement or debate on today's announcement about charging those who use the Child Support Agency? Members across the House will have had experience of constituents who have been affected by that shocking agency, which has targeted those in regular work, done little about those who evade their responsibilities and been shockingly inefficient in its handling of cases. To charge for that service would be a stealth tax and would add insult to injury.
Sir George Young: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that the written ministerial statement that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), put out this morning takes forward work started by the previous Government to move work away from the failed CSA and to promote conciliation. The Green Paper is a consultative document, and at the end of her written ministerial statement, my hon. Friend states:
"I welcome your contribution to this important piece of reform to the Child Maintenance system."
Mrs Anne Main (St Albans) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on the state of Britain's roads? After the parlous weather we have had for the past three years, the potholes and the state of road surfaces in heavily utilised areas such as mine around St Albans are an absolute disgrace because of the historical underinvestment.
Sir George Young: Some roads will be Highways Agency roads but others will be the responsibility of the county council. There is a debate this afternoon in Westminster Hall on the consequences of the comprehensive spending review on local government; my hon. Friend might have an opportunity to take part in that debate and raise her concerns with the relevant Minister.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): Yesterday morning, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued a press release notifying us for the first time that the H1N1 influenza virus had been found in poultry in the United Kingdom, but no announcement has been made to the House through either written or oral statement, and nor has the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs been notified of this very serious matter. Will the Leader of the House make urgent inquiries to find out why the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not respect the House?
Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend does respect the House, but I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman's question is communicated to DEFRA immediately and that my right hon. Friend takes any appropriate action to keep the House in the picture.
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): May we have a statement on civil unrest in Tunisia and Algeria? The Maghreb now counts as our near abroad and there are worrying signs that al-Qaeda and its spin-offs and fellow travellers are profiting from the current dire situation, which has clear implications for the United Kingdom.
Sir George Young: I understand my hon. Friend's concern. I cannot promise him an immediate debate but there will be an opportunity on 1 February to raise questions with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In the mean time, I shall pass on his concerns to the Foreign Secretary and ask my right hon. Friend to write to him.
Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Does the Leader of the House agree that we ought to have a debate on the misuse of council tax payers' money by council leaders such as Mike Whitby in Birmingham? He forced Birmingham taxpayers to pay a bill of more than £3,500 for his accommodation, meals and a rather large drinks bill during a five-day binge at the Tory party conference in 2008. Should we not have an urgent debate on that misuse of public money?
Sir George Young:
I have to say that that is a game that more than one party can play. I hope the hon. Gentleman will support what we are doing to promote
transparency in local government expenditure and to oblige local government to report all details of expenditure. We believe that that transparency will reduce any abuse by any party of local government expenditure.
Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon) (Con): Given that Air Southwest, which is now owned by Eastern Airways, has this week decided to close the vital air link between Plymouth Newquay and London Gatwick, with no consultation with the local community, may we have a statement from the Transport Secretary on the coalition's strategy on regional airports? Is it not right that Eastern Airways should discuss the decision with the local community, because the link is a hugely strategic one?
Sir George Young: I well understand the importance of that link for my hon. Friend's constituents and many others in the south-west. I shall try to arrange a meeting between him, other local Members and a Transport Minister to see whether this issue can be pursued.
Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): Very large machinery of Government changes were announced before Christmas, but this morning the Business Secretary could not tell the House which areas of policy he was responsible for. It is not unreasonable to ask the Leader of the House for a debate on those changes, not least because the Select Committee on which I sit does not know what work to scrutinise and for which areas it is responsible.
Sir George Young: I think the shadow Leader of the House asked not for a debate but for a written ministerial statement on exactly which responsibilities have been transferred. As I said a few moments ago, such a statement will be made very shortly.
Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con): Is it possible for the House to debate the lamentable value for money of commuter rail services provided by Southeastern? Its fares have just risen by a higher rate than any other operator in the country to the outrage of my constituents in Orpington and doubtless those of many other MPs in the franchise region.
Sir George Young: I understand my hon. Friend's concern on behalf of his constituents. There will be questions to the Secretary of State for Transport on 27 January, but in the mean time, he and other Members for south-east London might like to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall or an Adjournment debate. Let me say finally that the comprehensive spending review provided a generous settlement for rail investment. That has to be funded and I think it is legitimate to look to travellers to pay their part in funding that investment.
Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): May we have a debate on the overall impact of Government policy on disabled people and their families? Some constituents came to see me last Friday, very concerned about a range of policies on employment, benefits, social care and local authority services. Will the Leader of the House consider which of his Front-Bench colleagues could respond on behalf of the whole Government to reflect the cumulative impact of the changes on disabled people and on those who care for and love them?
Sir George Young: I understand the hon. Lady's concern. The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), has overall responsibility for disability, but we have put an extra £2 billion into social care between now and 2014-15 and it strikes me that the subject that the hon. Lady raises is suitable for a Back-Bench debate. The next time the Backbench Business Committee holds one of its Monday sessions, she might like to go along with colleagues and put in a bid for such a debate, which I think would be broadly welcomed on both sides of the House.
Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): Now that the country has been pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy, may we have a debate on the bank bail-outs? Small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency are asking me why, at the pivotal moment when we bailed out the banks, we did not get them to agree to lend to small and medium-sized businesses.
Sir George Young: This specific issue was addressed in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's statement on Tuesday. He made it clear that in the discussions we are having with the banks there have to be verifiable increases in bank lending over and above what they would otherwise have lent. The Opposition failed to secure that assurance when they were in government, but we are determined to secure it because it is vital in promoting growth and prosperity.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): May we have a debate on schools funding, particularly the application of the much-trumpeted pupil premium, given that figures published by today's Financial Times show that in the south-west of England nearly 90% of pupils will see their school's funding cut? That is completely contrary to the promises made by Ministers.
Sir George Young: I reject the assertion that any promises made by Ministers have been broken, but I shall draw the right hon. Gentleman's assertions to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary and invite him to rebut them in a letter as quickly as possible.
Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): May we have a debate in Government time on black holes? My constituents were extremely alarmed to hear in the media during the recess about almost £20 billion of unfunded tax cuts promised by the Leader of the Opposition.
Sir George Young: I would welcome such a debate. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has looked at The Times or The Guardian today, but apparently at a meeting of the shadow Cabinet, the Leader of the Opposition at last recognised that they had been in deficit denial and they decided to abandon such a policy. I hope that we can have a debate on the black hole and welcome the fact that the Labour party, which was responsible for the black hole, now recognises that. Labour will have no credibility at all until it comes up with some proposals for dealing with it.
Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab):
Will the Leader of the House schedule a debate on the future of the financial inclusion fund and the wider
issue of funding for citizens advice bureaux? The citizens advice bureau in the city of Wolverhampton does a fantastic job, and I am sure bureaux do so in the constituencies of right hon. and hon. Members across the House. Does he accept that it is perverse to be cutting funds to citizens advice bureaux for advice on debt relief and financial management at the same time as the Government are making wider cuts in benefits that are driving more people to seek the advice for which they are cutting the funding?
Sir George Young: I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman did not have an opportunity to put that question during BIS questions, when it would have been appropriately dealt with. I pay tribute to the work of the CABs, as all hon. Members do, and I hope that, as local authorities make difficult decisions, they will try to do their best to preserve the funding of CABs, to which people look at a time of recession and real problems of hardship. A £100 million fund is available to help certain charities, and I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has thought of applying to that.
Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend grant time to debate the proposed closures of the Limes and Manorbrooke care homes in my constituency of Dartford? Those homes are relied on by my constituents, who will be dismayed at the prospect of their imminent closure.
Sir George Young: I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the proposed closure of those homes. The responsibility, of course, rests with Kent county council. I will pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend at the appropriate Department, but I wonder whether my hon. Friend might seek an Adjournment debate so that the issue may be given more attention.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): May we have a statement on the Government's final position on control orders? I understand that that went to Cabinet on Tuesday. It was then reported by the BBC and newspapers. Indeed, they have got the name of the order that will replace the control order; it will be called the surveillance order. The Home Affairs Committee is currently investigating those important issues, and it would be helpful if the Home Secretary came to the House and gave a statement. There is business next week on the Home Office side. Perhaps she could make the statement next week.
Sir George Young: These are important and controversial issues, and I welcome the work that the right hon. Gentleman's Select Committee has been doing on them. The review of security powers is ongoing; it has not been completed. The Home Secretary will make a statement to the House once it is completed, and I expect that statement to be made in the week commencing 24 January.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): In the light of Lord Adonis's comments supporting the principle that all schools should be able to become academies, may we have a debate on the progress of the Government's academies programme, as that would, among other things, give Opposition Front Benchers the chance to join the growing coalition in favour of school reform?
Sir George Young: I welcome my hon. Friend's intervention, and we would be delighted to have such a debate, although it would probably have to take place in Backbench time. I welcome what Lord Adonis has just said:
"Neither I nor Tony Blair believed that academies should be restricted to areas with failing schools. We wanted all schools to be eligible for academy status, and we were enthusiastic about the idea of entirely new schools being established on the academy model, as in Michael Gove's Free Schools policy."
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I note that the Leader of the House and I have similar tastes in ties and shirts, and I hope that he is equally agreeable to my request. This morning, The Times has reported that France is suggesting that Britain ought to help to save the euro-a thesis that I do not accept. It has also been suggested that the continuation of the euro would be beneficial for Britain-another thesis that I do not accept. I am sure that I speak for many other Members. May we have a debate on those important matters in the near future?
On the substantive question, an important meeting is taking place as we speak with the French Prime Minister. My understanding is that, at 1 o'clock, there will be a joint press conference, where I have no doubt that the question that the hon. Gentleman has raised will be put and an answer given.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Given the importance of exports to Britain's economic recovery, would the Leader of the House like to consider holding a debate on trade policy, so that we could promote the actions already taken by the Government?
Sir George Young: That is an excellent idea. The Government have no plan to do so, but it might be a suitable subject for a Backbench debate. Many encouraging export orders have been made over the Christmas recess-some from China and many in the aerospace arena-and Sainsbury's made a commitment on Monday to create another 20,000 jobs, but I agree that we must do all that we can to promote export-led growth. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the newly appointed Minister for Trade will attack that task with vigour.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Why has the statement about the responsibilities that are being transferred from BIS not yet been made? Will the Leader of the House arrange for that to be done immediately? The Secretary of State was de-bagged on the last day of term. It has now been nearly a month since that change was announced. Is some sort of wrestling match going on behind the scenes over his residual responsibilities?
Sir George Young:
Some details need to be finalised. The hon. Gentleman will know that all responsibility for competition and policy issues that relate to the media, broadcasting, digital and telecoms sectors has been transferred to the Secretary of State for Culture,
Olympics, Media and Sport, and that includes full responsibility for Ofcom's activities in those areas. The Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) will be the Minister responsible for the digital economy. As I have said before, the details of those changes will be laid before the House in a written ministerial statement very shortly.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend make arrangements for an urgent statement on the use of Government press cutting services? From answers to written questions, we know that the last Government spent £12 million in the past five years on press cutting services alone. Does he not agree that that is an obscene waste of money and that the use of press cuttings in Departments should stop immediately?
Sir George Young: We should certainly seek to reduce the cost of politics. As my hon. Friend knows, we are reducing the overheads of government. I am sure that we will look critically at the amount of money spent by the last Government on the press cutting service to find out whether worthwhile economies, such as those that he proposes, can be made.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): On exactly the same point, will the right hon. Gentleman look very carefully at the waste of money incurred in the inaccurate answering of written questions by Ministers? In column 29W this week, the Minister responsible for shipping so inaccurately answered a question that I posed about marine safety that our friends in Hansard catalogued it under aviation. That is an absurd waste of money, and it will require me to ask further questions, incurring further cost to the public purse.
Sir George Young: I very much regret any discourtesy that was extended to the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that it was unintentional. Ministers at the Dispatch Box do their best to give accurate answers. Occasionally, amendments have to be made, and I am afraid that that has been the case with all Administrations.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): Now that the Prime Minister has indicated that a decision will be taken by 1 April to amend or replace the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, can we have an indication from the Leader of the House on who will take that decision? Will it be a matter for the Government or a matter for the House? Is my right hon. Friend convinced that Members are getting as swift a response to our queries as members of the public are to theirs?
Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is important that the review that IPSA has announced takes place. Those who have issues with IPSA should take part in that review and communicate their suggestions for change. It will then be a matter for the House to decide whether IPSA's proposed changes meet the requirements of the resolution that the House adopted unanimously in December. My hope is that IPSA understands the concern in the House about the current regime, reforms itself and makes proposals that meet the anxieties that my hon. Friend and many others have expressed. That would be an ideal solution, and it would be premature at the moment to look at plan B.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): May we have a clarifying statement from the Prime Minister on the royal wedding bank holiday? Everyone is looking forward to that joyous occasion, royalists and republicans alike, but the Library has issued a worrying note saying that employers do not have to give the day off and can dock pay or insist that a day is taken off from the summer holiday of their staff. We need clarification from the PM to make it clear to employers: let the people celebrate on 29 April.
Sir George Young: I entirely agree. I do not know what influence the right hon. Gentleman has with Mr Crow, but the latter's level of enthusiasm for the royal wedding is apparently somewhat different from the right hon. Gentleman's. It is not absolutely clear whether, if the RMT went ahead with its proposals, people would be able to get to work if they wanted to. If there is a need for clarity, I am sure that clarity will be produced.
Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): May I echo the call of the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on bank bonuses? My constituents are enraged that Fred Goodwin got £15 million in bonuses, that knighthoods were thrown about like confetti, and that bank bail-outs encouraged excessive bonuses for the fat cats. We need a change in policy from "everyone out for themselves" and "up with the fat cats," to more "all in it together."
Sir George Young: I applaud my hon. Friend's sentiments. He was probably in the House when the Chancellor made his statement suggesting a very robust negotiating position with the banks. The Chancellor also indicated during questions and answers that he would want to report back to the House once those negotiations had been completed.
Steve Rotheram (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Following on from the previous question, I understand that the Government's ongoing talks with the five biggest banks on bankers' bonuses is ironically called Project Merlin. Is that because Standard Chartered bank has already disappeared from the talks, and Santander is likely to vanish from them, too? Will the Leader of the House pull a rabbit out of the hat and facilitate an urgent debate on bankers' bonuses, and everybody else can then fill in their own puns?
Sir George Young: I shall see whether I can produce a sword from a stone. We are talking about negotiations and discussions that should have taken place some time ago, when the taxpayer was helping the banks, but they did not take place then. We are now-belatedly, because of the inaction of the previous Government-trying to make sure that taxpayers get value for money for the investment in the banks. As I said a few moments ago, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a statement about the talks on Tuesday, and he indicated that he would want to keep the House in the picture when they were concluded.
Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con):
Will my right hon. Friend consider finding time to discuss the impact of two recent resignations from the NHS in London, namely that of the chief executive officer of NHS North Central London and that of the CEO of my constituency hospital, Chase Farm, this week? Both
were actively pursuing the previous Government's policy of introducing unwelcome reconfiguration. The House would then have the opportunity to discuss the impact of those proposals and kick them out.
Sir George Young: I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the configuration of the NHS in his constituency. I should like to pass his comments on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and see what appropriate action might be taken by the Government in response.
Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): It is extraordinary that the Government cannot tell us who is now responsible for what. Is it the case that the whole of telecommunications policy has been transferred from BIS to DCMS? Is the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred a few moments ago, still a BIS Minister or not?
Sir George Young: I read out a few moments ago the words on the piece of paper in front of me that indicates where the responsibility rests. There will be a full written ministerial statement in due course, which I hope will answer the right hon. Gentleman's question.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): In view of the fact that the Government's key challenge and objective was to save Britain from the brink of bankruptcy, will the Leader of the House arrange a debate so that the House can consider the progress made in reducing the structural deficit, following the mess left by the previous Administration?
Sir George Young: I would welcome such a debate. At the Budget, there will be an opportunity for several days' debate on the Government's economic policy. I share my hon. Friend's welcome of the fact that we are no longer on the brink of bankruptcy, of the fact that our credit rating has been restored, and of the fact that we are not in the same position as some other countries that have not taken the action that we have taken to reduce the deficit.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Could we have a debate on the eligibility of council employees to stand for public office? In an increasingly unitary local government framework, does it make any sense to continue to disqualify lollipop ladies and classroom assistants from standing for election to their local councils? Should we not encourage public service by making those people eligible to be councillors?
Sir George Young: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have introduced the Localism Bill. There may be an opportunity, as that Bill goes through the House, to have a debate on eligibility to be a local councillor, to see whether we can remove disqualifications for which there are no apparent reasons.
Mr Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con): This week, the outgoing Dutch member of the EU Court of Auditors criticised the watchdog for its "cover-up culture", "Kremlin-style" misinformation, and watering-down of criticism of financial abuse. May we have a statement from Ministers on what is being done to tackle endemic fraud at the EU?
Sir George Young: I understand my hon. Friend's concern. Any level of fraud in the EU budget is wholly unacceptable. We recognise that major improvements need to be made to financial arrangements within the EU. We continue to support the work of the European Court of Auditors and to highlight the importance of independent scrutiny of the EU's accounts.
John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I realise that there is an Opposition day debate next week on the abolition of the education maintenance allowance, but does the Leader of the House not think that it should be held in Government time? Does he not think it extraordinary that such a far-reaching change has not even been the subject of a ministerial statement?
Sir George Young: I do not accept the proposition that the debate should be held in Government time. The whole point of having Opposition days is that the Opposition can choose a subject for debate about which they have an issue with what the Government are doing. That is what they have done. The Government will respond to the debate on Wednesday, explaining why we believe that the EMA had a lot of dead-weight associated with it and was not well targeted, and that the regime that we plan to introduce in the autumn will make better use of the funds available.
Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on any changes to the rules surrounding medical or two-pill abortions, and particularly on the level of involvement of medical professionals in those procedures?
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend refers to a case, initiated by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, that is shortly to go to the High Court. The Government's view is that, under present legislation, what the BPAS wants to do would be illegal; that is why we are resisting the application. The final decision will rest with the courts.
Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The rising cost of home heating oil is causing significant worry to householders and small businesses across north Yorkshire. May we have a debate on what pressure the Government could bring to bear on oil companies, which appear to have taken advantage of the very poor weather in recent months?
Sir George Young:
Many Members with rural constituencies will have had representations, as I am
sure my hon. Friend has, about the high cost of oil over the Christmas holidays. I believe that the matter is being taken up with the Office of Fair Trading, to see whether there is a case for investigation, but I will ask the relevant Secretary of State to write to my hon. Friend, outlining the action that the Government are taking to make sure that consumers are not ripped off.
Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): May we have a debate on opening up Network Rail to full scrutiny by the National Audit Office? Due to the bizarre legal entity set up by the previous Prime Minister, it stands to report to a small number of members, including train companies, and answers directly neither to Parliament nor to company shareholders.
Sir George Young: The governance of Network Rail is an extraordinary constitution, and of course it is right that it should be exposed to full audit. I will raise with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport whether we have any proposals to change the governance of Network Rail that may solve the problem, or if we have not, whether we have any other proposals to make sure that its accounts are looked at properly.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend ask the Chancellor to make a statement about the number of representations that he has received calling for an increase in employers' national insurance contributions, and incidentally, will he tell us how many have been made from people in Hull?
Sir George Young: As my hon. Friend knows, we took the view that the last thing the country needed at this time was an increase in national insurance employer contributions, and that was the right decision to take. As to whether the shadow Chancellor is at one with the rest of the shadow Cabinet on the subject, I do not know, but I hope that he will welcome any increase in employment in his constituency as a result of the actions that we took.
Mr Speaker: Order. I am advised that the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) came into the Chamber well after the statement by the Leader of the House, and it is for that reason that I did not call him to ask a question. I say to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) that we will come to points of order, but not before we have dealt with the application for a debate under Standing Order No. 24.
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